Bah Humbug Blues

It’s enough to give a curmudgeon heartburn. Every year I lament that fact that certain members of our human race (I call them “idiots” in private, but I shouldn’t say that in public), conspire to start decorating for Christmas earlier and earlier. This year is no exception.

scrooge.gifI should warn those of the elf-hugging, ornament-dangling, Christmas-fruitcake-sharing persuasion that this article is…well, basically a rant. A well-deserved, well-intended rant, but a rant none the less. So cover your children’s ears and hide your puppies.

In years past, I’ve always complained about those early rushers who attempt to squeeze a few extra days (weeks really) into the blessed Christmas season. You’d hear me exclaim, “Dang, we just finished Thanksgiving and they’re decorating already!” Okay, so that’s a G-rated version. Most likely I would have said darn instead, but I digress. Over the last few years I’ve had to revise my statement to something like “Drat, it’s not even Thanksgiving yet and they’re starting to decorate.” Well, this year takes the cake (and if it’s fruitcake, yes, please take it…as far away as possible). A few weeks ago Starbuck’s started decorating and doing other terrible things, such as playing Christmas music. Granted, Miles Davis’ rendition of Jingle Bells was noteworthy, but ask me again after hearing it forty times and I’ll use a different adjective. Yes, it really happened, and this was around the 10th of November! Oh, but that’s not the worst of it. Last month a few brave retailers started decorating BEFORE Halloween. If that trend continues, we’ll have to change that famous refrain to “Ho ho ho, trick or treat.” And to top that, last week, I spied a group of three Dickensian-attired carolers outside a favorite bookstore. It’s 80 degrees outside, and the middle of flippin’ November…hardly the time to get all Christmasy. Better yet, let’s all lobby to get the red, white, and blue approach to Independence Day changed to red, white, and green so we can start decorating in JULY!…not.

So what’s so wrong with decorating and celebrating Christmas WITHIN the month of December? Seems like this would be a more intense, enjoyable way to celebrate, and some of us would then be less likely to punch out carolers before it’s properly cold enough to carol. We should blame retailers of course, since they’re the ones pushing the envelope (and the ones mostly benefiting from rushing the season). I understand why they start the insanity, since the Christmas shopping gorge fest is what keeps them alive. For most stores over half of their annual sales occur during the blessed holiday. Unfortunately in this headlong commercialization of the holiday, the true meaning of Christmas has probably been lost, save for a few brave parents who attempt to instill the Christmas story and reasons for sharing on their children, who listen intently and politely then promptly hand in their extensive toy lists.

Before anyone think me a full-blown curmudgeon who totally disdains Christmas, I do enjoy celebrating the event, but typically this insanity comes on me like a fever about December 23rd, or in my bad years, December 20th. Thankfully the madness leaves around December 26th. I am blessed that while growing up, my family celebrated the season in good ways, and so I have Christmas memories beyond the presents received over time. I remember events and moments from the past that are nice reflections of true Christmas.

So go ahead elf-huggers, decorate early. Play your Christmas songs until we’re sick of them and Christmas still weeks and weeks away. If it makes you jolly, dangle that mistletoe and decorate that soon-to-be-dried-out tree before the Thanksgiving turkey carcass is picked clean. Whatever makes you happy. But I won’t be the one standing in the post-Christmas line, fighting to exchange Grandma’s gift sweater with arms of different length. Me and my lump of coal will be just fine sitting in front of the fire, worrying about important things, such as when retailers will realize that Santa is just a laborer and outsource him or race to start taping plastic holly up on September 6th. It’s enough to make a grown curmudgeon cry.

Warren Spahn

Yesterday one of baseball’s greats passed on to that hall of fame in the sky. Warren Spahn’s passing, the winningest lefty of all time, gives us a chance to reflect back on baseball the way it used to be played before the million-dollar babies, strikes, and other tug-of-wars over the greed that marks baseball today.

In Warren’s day, a pitcher pitched until he couldn’t any longer. Today’s pitchers, for the most part, can barely make the seventh inning (witness the recent painful example of Pedro Martinez in the ALCS). In all fairness, part of this is because of the current managerial trends to replace pitchers willy-nilly in hopes of getting the best statistical matchups. But I think part of the reason has to be mental toughness and a “there’s no tomorrow” attitude the old ballplayers seemed to have.

A great example of this was the legendary game between Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal. The game went 16 innings with BOTH pitchers staying in the whole way…a classic showing of this tough-guy approach to the game. At the time Spahn was 42 while Marichal only 25. When Marichal’s coach wanted to pull him out, he said, “A 42-year-old man is still pitching. I can’t come out.” Macho stuff. No doubt Spahn would have stayed in even if his arm fell off…he would simply have thrown using his other arm, figuring out some crafty way to get the job done.

For those of us who love baseball, we’re reluctantly used to managers who change players like itchy shirts, and players that seem to have self-imposed limits…not because we agree with these tactics, but it’s what we have, what we’re given. But I’m still young enough to remember when players played until they couldn’t any longer, and “strategical” fiddlings by managers were few and far between. Today’s players may be bigger and stronger (perhaps not all naturally either), but the heyday players of old who played until they couldn’t are becoming a distant memory.

My Dogmas are Barking

Pogo once said it best: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Sometimes we are, indeed, our worst enemies. It’s easy at times to fall back into the “woulda, coulda, shouldas” that keep us from progressing. Positive thinking seems to equate to forward thinking, which by definition implies that one shouldn’t dwell on the past. I love the line from Tony Blair’s recent speech about leadership: “I have not got a reverse gear.” Adopting a forward-motion-only attitude can only encourage better progress in life.

One of my passions has been books…reading, writing, collecting, selling…doesn’t matter. I started selling used and rare books on the Internet back in 1993, and 4 years ago actually quit my partnership in a writing and design firm to devote full time to this passion. As it turned out, I was allergic to starving, so I had to stop bookselling and go get a, gasp, “J” thing…one of those indentured servitude ventures commonly known as a “job.” But I always felt that I “shoulda” made it work, that I “coulda” done things different, and I “woulda” been happier if I had stuck it out and made it successful. Granted, the most enjoyable aspect of bookselling on the Internet was the ability to converse and sell a book to someone in Ireland while siting in my pajamas with a stocked refrigerator just a short walk away.

As I attempt to quiet my barking dogmas, I’ve come to realize that I shouldn’t give up my passion of life among books, and so I’m going back to bookselling but on a part-time, avocational path this time. While I’m not giving up the job (I may like working in my pajamas, but I’m not crazy), I am following my heart and my path as Carlos Castaneda once said:

> Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t, it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere; but once has a heart, the other doesn’t. One makes for a joyful journey; as long as you follow it, you are one with it. The other one will make you curse your life. One makes you strong; the other weakens you.

So now, for at least a small corner of my internal dogpound, my dogmas are as happy as yorkies high on yummy treats. The enemy may be us, but when we negotiate the right kind of peace treaty with our internal enemy, all becomes quiet on the front.

The Gauntlet

I’m amazed how dependent we are on our Internet connections, particularly email. Just watch how people respond when they lose their Internet connections for a few hours. In a word, panic…as in, “I don’t know what to do!” I have had the same reaction, particularly at work. The Internet/email connection has become the biggest driver in our lives. And for some people, sadly, it’s the only driver in their lives. A friend who works in Big Corporate related how everyone on his floor simply sat around and talked when their network/T1 went down…no one could/would do any work.

Think this is baloney? Then take Chuck Martin’s challenge: go a week without email…no sending, no receiving (and no instant messaging). See how you react to losing your electronic umbilical cord. In his article at Darwin.org, Martin claims a typical manager could save 5-10 hours a week not dealing with email. Seems like a significant amount of time! How did we cope before the advent of email? My recollection is that not only did we do just fine, we were more productive in a lot of ways, and more importantly, we interacted with PEOPLE a lot more (what a concept…). You could even build a good argument that email/Internet has irrevocably damaged our ability to socialize in meaningful ways.

I realize there are a lot of benefits to email. After all, it has single-handedly contributed to making out world a lot smaller. And who doesn’t marvel at communication with someone around the world within a few seconds? Part of the leper’s clothing that email seems to be wearing of late is solely the fault of evil spam (a redundant phrase!), and less the loss of interpersonal, face-to-face communication. But it’s significant that one of the hottest areas in business books today is about improving conversations. Surely you remember these? The thing that happens when two or more people exist in the same dimension at the same time occupying the same relative space? It’s called TALKING and requires LIVE people (at least in the scientific sense).

Email as we now know it may well cease to exist. There is some evidence that face-to-face is making a comeback. And spam is increasing exponentially to the point that people will soon consider letters and phone calls as a more effective way to communicate, rather than wade through the spam in their inboxes. But in the meantime, take the addiction test: go a week without email and see what you’ve been missing in your life. You may even remember how to TALK to a real person again! In the immortal words of Judy Tenuta, “It could happen.”

Healing Holidays

Having just come off a tough, but interesting week leading a causal investigation in New Orleans, I find myself wishing I had more vacation time available to recharge the old brain cells. I, like most American business people, have two precious weeks per year during which I have to attempt renewal and rejustification from the stresses and tensions of the other 50 weeks of servitude. I have no complaints about my employer, who is generous with personal leave time that allows me to take care of minor appointments and take-junior-to-the-dentist absences, but I do yearn for an approach more like other countries.

Joe Robinson’s article, Vacation Starvation, points out the obvious problem with the corporate U.S. approach to downtime, the “hey, things are tough, we can’t afford you leaving, you should be grateful to have a job” guilt spree that seems too often the modus operandi of corporate managers in denying vacation leave. The article hints at the obvious problem regarding stress build up, but doesn’t go so far as to state that this aversion to letting employees break away is killing us…literally. Stress does mystical things, all bad, to our bods and brains, and vacations are a critical, curative part of the solution to stress disease. We all might as well start calling stress a disease, since it’s now commonly understood that stress can bring about the same physiological problems as that of some textbook diseases. Stress also has the uncanny ability to cause multiple symptoms that defy identification by medical practitioners. I gain great confidence in the mainstream medical profession when I spend big bucks on doctor visits and tests only to have them pronounce, “well, it’s probably stress…try relaxing a bit.”

In the Alternet.org article, Joe mentions at the bottom that he is the founder of the Work to Live Campaign, on the web at http://www.worktolive.info. If this issue speaks to you at all, you owe it to yourself to visit his site. And if stress is your monkey, stay tuned…I’ll be posting some interesting approaches to de-stressing the human existence.

Hurricane Memories

As we in south Texas await the gentle spanking of Tropical Storm Claudette (which by the time you read this may have become Hurricane Claudette), I’m taken back in time to when I lived through several hurricanes. I was 10 at the time, but I remember the experiences vividly. At that age I wasn’t concerned with house or personal safety like my parents were…I was more enthralled with witnessing Mother Nature at her finest fury.

My dad was stationed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and during that hurricane season many decades ago we sheltered through several hurricanes that waltzed across the navy base there at Guantanamo. One particular hurricane, Flora I think, passed her eye over the base. I can remember the sensations, sights, and smells associated with that remarkable event. We had sheltered for the storm in my dad’s Chief Petty Officer’s quarters, which was hurricane proof. When the eye passed over, we all went outside and I cannot precisely describe the eeriness that standing in the eye of a hurricane brings…you who have done this know what I mean. Perhaps it’s merely the dramatic contrast between the violent wind and rain of the storm that suddenly ceases, leaving you with ringing eyes and a sense that the outside world is frozen solid, nothing moving. I don’t know if all hurricane eyes look like Flora’s did, but the area was bathed in a soft pink glow with clear sky above us.

The respite lasted no more than 15 minutes, and ended as dramatically as it began with the trailing edge of the eye and all its fury restarting marching towards us, frantically whipping every palm tree in its way. We scurried inside and went back to our board games and distractions (hey, this was pre-computer, pre-GameBoy era).

At the start of every hurricane season I recall those times and think about how remarkable they were (and revisit my amazement that I remember them so well). And even though I’ve since been through several hurricanes as an adult (with quite a different level of concern and attention!), I do miss those times when all I focused on was how marvelous and impressive Mother Nature could be when she bared her fury.